How to Inspect a Used Car before Buying

How to Inspect a Used Car before Buying
Take a close look at the body and inspect for any sign of paint or body-work. Ⓒ Provided by Driving

By Brian Turner, Driving

We’ve all heard of, or experienced, horror stories about used cars that seemed to be in good condition but turned out to be nightmares costing thousands to repair and maintain. In the hunt for a “cream puff” pre-owned vehicle, what steps can we take on our own to make sure we don’t get burned? Whether you turn to a registered retailer or a private seller, here are some steps and hints to keep in mind when searching for a good used auto:

Let’s start off with light. It might seem like a no-brainer, but never check out a used car at night. Even the best-lit dealer’s lot or strongest flashlight aren’t going to be enough to see everything you’ll want to inspect.

Read More: Should I Buy A Brand-New, Almost-New, Or Used Car?

During your inspection, have a close look at the body itself. While there’s often nothing wrong with buying a vehicle that’s seen some collision repair, if the seller is representing it as unscathed and you find evidence of paint or body work, you may want to ask yourself, “What else is being misrepresented here?” Check the wheel-well plastic liners and exposed under-carriage components, such as the exhaust tailpipe, for signs of paint over-spray. These items are nowhere near the body when it’s painted at the factory, and if you see any body-matched paint on them, it’s a sure sign the vehicle has been repainted. The same traces can be found on the plastic cover of the engine’s radiator or on the edges of window and door trims.

Check body panel gaps on doors, deck lids and hoods (as well as bumper covers and fenders) for any sign of uneven spacing, which may indicate a collision. Open and close the hood, deck lid or liftgate, and all doors to check for their ease of operation and latching. Run your hand on the paint. If the body is clean and you feel any grit, it may be from over-spray on the paint’s clear-coat. While checking underneath a vehicle may be difficult without a hoist, or clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, you can get an easy closeup look at just about everything with a smartphone and a selfie stick (hey, they serve a useful purpose after all).

How to Inspect a Used Car before Buying
Check body panel gaps on doors, deck lids and hoods (as well as bumper covers and fenders) for any sign of uneven spacing, which may indicate a collision. Ⓒ Provided by Driving

When checking undercarriages, look for rust on fuel and brake lines as well as on floor pans and fuel tanks. Pay specific attention to the leading edge of lower components, such as the front control arms that attach the wheel units to the sub-frame. While light scrapes and marks aren’t much to worry about, any severe gouges or dents on these very tough metal arms may mean some substantial impacts that can affect wheel alignment. Look for the rubber bushings that are located on control arms and other suspension parts to see if there is any displacement (they’re not sitting flush in their spots) or for any dry-cracking of the rubber. And, of course, don’t miss any loose or broken bits, or wiring.

Read More: 20 Cars That Will Be Worthless After 5 Years Of Ownership

On the tires, check for any uneven wear across the face of the tread that can mean alignment problems. Run your hand around the inside and outside edge of the treads. Any severe cupping or jagged wear here can mean worn struts and shocks or tires that have seldom been rotated.

Pop the hood and check for any visible signs of oil leaks. Look for any wiring that’s not contained in the usual manufacturer’s black protective ribbed sheath. This might mean aftermarket add-ons or some backyard electrical repairs. Pull the dipsticks; vehicle fluids can tell you a lot about what type of life their component has had. Engine oil should range from light to dark brown, and not black. Take a sniff; if it smells gassy, the engine may have been running rich at one time. If you’re lucky enough to find an automatic transmission dipstick (and a lot of modern vehicles don’t have one) that fluid should be medium to dark red in color and should have no burnt odor. Get a good look at it in direct light. If you see any metal flake sparkling, it’s metal deposits from worn transmission parts. Any particles you can feel between your fingers usually mean severe wear.

Next week, we’ll finish off on fluids and let you know the warnings that any yellow or white grease pen marks may mean.

Read More: Here's What You Need to Know before Buying Used Cars

See more at Driving

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Autos Magazine: How to Inspect a Used Car before Buying
How to Inspect a Used Car before Buying
From fluids to tires to panel gaps, these are a few items you should thoroughly inspect before buying a used car.
Autos Magazine
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